Rich pictures


Rich pictures were particularly developed as part of Peter Checkland’s Soft Systems Methodology for gathering information about a complex situation (Checkland, 1981; Checkland and Scholes, 1990). The idea of using drawings or pictures to think about issues is common to several problem solving or creative thinking methods (including therapy) because our intuitive consciousness communicates more easily in impressions and symbols than in words. Drawings can both evoke and record insight into a situation, and different visualization techniques such as visual brainstorming, imagery manipulation and creative dreaming have been developed emphasizing one of these two purposes over the other (Garfield, 1976; McKim, 1980; Shone, 1984; Parker, 1990).

Rich pictures are drawn at the pre-analysis stage, before you know clearly which parts of the situation should best be regarded as process and which as structure.

Part of a rich picture of a telephone helpline situation

Rich pictures (situation summaries) are used to depict complicated situations. They are an attempt to encapsulate the real situation through a no- holds-barred, cartoon representation of all the ideas covered already layout, connections, relationships, influences, cause-and-effect, and so on. As well as these objective notions, rich pictures should depict subjective elements such as character and characteristics, points of view and prejudices, spirit and human nature. If you are working with a client you should try to draw these from the actors themselves, at least initially, rather than focusing on your own interpretation of the situation.



  1. To help interpret a situation, choose symbols, scenes or images that represent the situation. Use as many colours as necessary and draw the symbols on a large piece of paper. Try not to get too carried away with the fun and challenge to your ingenuity in finding pictorial symbols.
  2. Put in whatever connections you see between your pictorial symbols: avoid producing merely an unconnected set. Places where connections are lacking may later prove significant.
  3. Avoid too much writing, either as commentary or as ‘word bubbles’ coming from people’s mouths (but a brief summary can help explain the diagram to other people).
  4. Don’t include systems boundaries or specific references to systems in any way (see below).


  1. A rich picture is an attempt to assemble everything that might be relevant to a complex situation. You should somehow represent every observation that occurs to you or that you gleaned from your initial survey.
  2. Fall back on words only where ideas fail you for a sketch that encapsulates your meaning.
  3. You should not seek to impose any style or structure on your picture. Place the elements on your sheet wherever your instinct prompts. At a later stage you may find that the placement itself has a message for you.
  4. If you ‘don’t know where to begin’, then the following sequence may help to get you started:
    1. first look for the elements of structure in the situation (these are the parts of the situation that change relatively slowly over time and are relatively stable, the people, the set-ups, the command hierarchy, perhaps);
    2. next look for elements of process within the situation (these are the things that are in a state of change: the activities that are going on);
    3. then look for the ways in which the structure and the processes interact. Doing this will give you an idea of the climate of the situation. That is, the ways in which the structure and the processes relate to each other.
  5. Avoid thinking in systems terms. That is, using ideas like: ‘Well, the situation is made up of a marketing system and a production system and a quality control system’. There are two reasons for this. The first is that the word ‘system’ implies organized interconnections and it may be precisely the absence of such organized interconnectedness that lies at the heart of the matter: therefore, by assuming its existence (by the use of the word system) you may be missing the point. Note, however, that this does not mean that there won’t be some sort of link or connection between your graphics, as mentioned above. The second reason is that doing so will channel you down a particular line of thought, namely the search for ways of making these systems more efficient.
  6. Make sure that your picture includes not only the factual data about the situation, but also the subjective information.
  7. Look at the social roles that are regarded within the situation as meaningful by those involved, and look at the kinds of behaviour expected from people in those roles. If you see any conflicts, indicate them.
  8. Finally, include yourself in the picture. Make sure that your roles and relationships in the situation are clear. Remember that you are not an objective observer, but someone with a set of values, beliefs and norms that colour your perceptions.